The New York City Commercial Cargo Bike Program started in 2019 as a trial run. Then the pandemic hit, and cargo bikers suddenly became unsung heroes. Now, the program is growing. But what does it mean to deliver groceries by bike? For this audio story, Lucy Soucek recently spent a few days outside a Whole Foods in Manhattan to find out.
This is Telling True Stories in Sound, I’m Lucy Soucek.
You want me to give you the speech now?
And this is Jay Ruiz.
(sigh) Lucy, this is what I want you to do: I want you to follow all traffic rules. Okay? I don’t care how much pressure you get from upstairs, I never want you to sacrifice safety for speed. You understand?
Jay works for a carrier company called Breakaway that partners with Amazon to facilitate grocery deliveries on bikes.
And there’s three types of people I need you to look out for: I need you to look out for the people that like to walk across the street texting, and they don’t pay attention to anything. You got to also pay attention to these people that like to jaywalk. They come up between two vans. Alright, and I also need you to pay attention to the people that are wearing their music on so loud, they don’t hear you say, ‘Hey, I’m, I’m coming.’ All these people, even though they fucking up Lucy, they got the right of way. I never want you to hit anybody, Lucy. I never want you to get hit. Amazon can replace a bag, I cannot replace you.
Grocery deliveries by bike definitely made their mark during the pandemic. According to a Department of Transportation report published this spring, from May of 2020 to January of 2021, the number of cargo bike deliveries increased by 109%. When it comes to this industry, there are a few key players. Besides the people who actually bike the orders to their destinations, there are people who call themselves valet overseers. That’s what Jay is. He’s sort of a referee for all the cargo bikers and trailers at his location.
When I first approached him on a Thursday morning in June, this is the first thing he said.
What angle you working?
LUCY (in scene) 2
This is supposed to be like a day in the life.
Alright. Cause I need you to work this angle; you don’t mind. My guys deserve the most respect in the world. And Imma tell you why, Imma tell you why. These guys work in the heat. These guys work in the rain. These guys work in the snow. In the most unbelievable conditions.
It’s understandable how protective Jay is of his staff. The program is fairly new, and he wants them to be safe. Mayor Bill de Blasio started the Cargo Bike Initiative in 2019, a partnership between Amazon, DHL, and UPS. It was a way to try and decrease truck congestion and reduce carbon emissions. It was a trial run. And then the pandemic hit. The delivery bikers immediately became essential workers.
From April to June 2020, Amazon grocery delivery sales tripled compared to 2019. At the beginning of the program there were 100 bikes, and now there’s 350. It’s been a massive success, and it’s still growing. Now, they are looking to transition the pilot to a permanent program.
So I wanted to know, what about the couriers behind the deliveries? The people who get on their bikes and deliver the groceries every single day, and the people who facilitate this operation. So I spent a few days outside a Whole Foods in Manhattan to see what it’s like. That’s where I met Jay.
At around 8 o’clock in the morning, it’s relatively quiet. So Jay spends his time walking along the breakdown lane with his carabiner of keys, organizing the row of 22 bikes. His goal is to have all the bright yellow, 3-foot long trailers backed up to the sidewalk.
I’m making it look neat and I’m getting it out of there, and I’m just lining them up, keep them lined up, keep them looking nice. That’s the way Amazon wants it, that’s the way my boss wants it.
LUCY (in scene) 3
Does it feel like satisfying to you to park em like this?
Yes, it looks like a fleet. Don’t you feel like you’re on the episode of Top Gun? I’m Tom Cruise and that’s my wing guy, no just kidding.
Each time a delivery biker comes out of the Whole Foods, Jay and his valet partner point them towards their assigned bikes. They’d come out with a stack of nine bins on a metal rack with wheels, and start lifting the bins onto their trailers. They have two hours to complete an average of ten stops anywhere from the bottom of Manhattan up to 25th street. So they’re biking back and forth, back and forth for 2 hours, across a 3 and a half mile stretch in sweltering heat, or rain, dodging trucks and pedestrians, with tubs of groceries trailing behind them. It’s a lot of work.
Raphael Deleon is up next. He has a personal stake in the job, because he was actually the first biker at this location during the trial run in 2019.
I felt good about doing it and I did the best I could. I did my deliveries fast and that’s it.
This morning, Raphael is talking me through his assigned route.
The window for this route is 8:00 to 10:00. So it’s 7:00, I guess it’s a little bit after 7:00… 7:20. So // if I leave right now, I can probably knock out about three stops before 8:00, maybe three or four, depending on how close they are. So by doing that, I can come back here and pick up another route and do the same thing. You know I can load up early and leave early; it allows me to do extra routes.
Once Raphael has all his bins loaded up on his bike, he secures them with a bungee cord, and he’s off. These delivery bikers get paid $15 an hour to start, plus whatever tips they make. So he wants to do extra routes because if you get more jobs, you’ll get more tips.
By midmorning a steady stream of bikers are coming in and out of the breakdown lane, unloading empty bins and replacing them with filled ones. Some of them clearly have tons of experience under their belts, like Raphael. They’d leave for a job with nine bins stacked on their trailer and then I’d blink and they’d be back with the empty bins, ready to go again.
Meanwhile, I’m standing there holding a microphone in front of their faces, getting hot and tired…and hungry, so I left for a bit to get lunch. But that’s something they don’t have time for. They don’t get a formal lunch break, they aren’t even allowed to sit down on the curb for a few minutes. They’re expected to just…keep…going.
When I get back, Jay is standing in the middle of the bike lane with a frown on his face. He’s looking down at his iPhone, stylus in hand. So I go up to Malik Green, the delivery biker next to him, to see what’s going on.
LUCY (in scene) 4
What are you waiting for right now?
Uh, he’s gonna file a report because I got hit by a car. The trailer’s messed up and I didn’t know that that was something you had to do when you got hit by a car.
It wasn’t a big crash, and Malik wasn’t hurt, but the trailer at the back of the bike was broken. Each time someone went up to put their grocery bins on top of the trailer, Jay would warn them…don’t take that one. You could tell he was frustrated.
But this is another reality of the job. Accidents are inevitable when you have to rush. You want to make tips, go as fast as you can, and you don’t want to get fired. And to top it off, Breakaway established a ranking system to organize the bikers. If they think you’re one of the best, you’re assigned the letter A.
So if you can do a lot of stops, right, a lot of stops and you have no lates, you’re always on time. No problems. No write-ups, um, you could trust you with any amount of stops and any amount of packages. You’re a A biker.
That’s Jonathan Ward. He works as a dispatcher for Breakaway, which means he sits upstairs above Whole Foods and assigns routes to the bikers based on orders that come in. He says the ranking system goes like this.
If you don’t have any write ups, and you can do around 10 or more stops in two hours consistently, you’re an A biker, and you get assigned 5 days of work. But then it goes down from there. The days of work you’re assigned directly correlates to your letter ranking. So, a B biker is someone who is probably newer, but might be just as fast as an A biker. B bikers get three to four days of work. C bikers, two days. D biker, mmm….not promising anything. Jonathan thinks this ranking system encourages the bikers to work harder.
I spoke to bikers Ernest Okunseri and Zane Johnson about the ranking system.
Every biker has his own statistic. Um, basically are you an A, B or C rider. If you’re an A, B or C rider, that determines how many hours a week you get.
There’s D riders too. I’m a D rider. I’m a D class writer. I’ve always been, always been.
Some bikers I talked to either didn’t know their ranking or didn’t really care about it. They said they were doing the best they could and that was that. But underneath that sentiment is the reality that the faster you can go, the more money you’ll make.
This job is basically about fitness. So they judge you on what you can do. Basically, if you can, if you’re the goat, you’re the goat. If you can carry all this, 15 stops, do it within two hours and you can do that on the daily, they give you five days a week.
There’s a high turnover rate for this job. The bar for entry is fairly low, and the work is extremely taxing. If you’re not physically able to do the job as fast as others, you’re directly penalized for that. And more often than not, bikers actually only last a few months before they’re replaced. Mohammed Abas, another valet overseer, explained to me why people leave so soon.
A lot of people come and do this for three months and then that’s it because of just how crazy and physically demanding it is on the body. And like I said, like not a lot of people are ready to be overworked.
If you’re fast, and you keep your head down, the job is doable. But if you deviate from that path? You’re out.
Lately it’s been more strict than ever. They just kinda like to filter out a whole bunch and then hire new people again, like we’ve had observations, that’s what we call them, the trainees who come in and want to be couriers. We’ve been having observations like two times, three times a week.
When I was getting ready to leave in the afternoon, I saw Raphael standing outside of the Whole Foods waiting for his ride home. It was the end of his shift. He looked tired.
It’s always a good feeling when you get out of here. (chuckle) This can be kind of labor-intensive…you’re going up steps and all these people’s groceries, five flights and the next stop is doing the same thing, you know? You feel good when you’re done. You’re like, ah!
Even though it’s hard work, many of the bikers actually enjoy the job. They excel in this fast paced, physically taxing environment. They love being outside, they love biking around the city, and they said 2 hours was more than enough time to get their stops done. Others came back sweaty, tired, and got more and more frustrated as their shifts continued. One biker said the worst part of his job was carrying boxes and boxes of cans of La Croix up 5th floor walk ups. And then biking to the next stop and doing it all over again.
So I guess, like pretty much anything, working as a cargo biker comes with it’s pros and cons. For some, it’s a good way to get paid to workout, for others, it’s just a way to get food on the table.
It’s a complex industry. And it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
This story first appeared on Telling True Stories in Sound.
About the author(s)
Lucy Soucek is a long-form audio journalist based in New York City. Before coming to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she was an announcer and producer at Maine Public Radio for two years. She’s passionate about collaborating with other audio producers to tell unique stories and forward intercultural understanding. She grew up in Maine and lives with her cat, Luna. Follow her on Twitter: @lesoucek or reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check out her other work at https://www.lucysoucek.com/.